Melissa Harris-Perry: Back with you on the Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega.
Speaker 1: Do you know what transgender means?
Speaker 2: Like Caitlyn Jenner?
Speaker 1: Yes. I guess, like Caitlyn Jenner.
Speaker 2: When someone is a man, but they want to be a woman.
Speaker 1: It's like when you're born, everyone thinks you're a boy or a girl, but you know you're not. You really feel the opposite.
Melissa: In Hulu’s groundbreaking series First Day, a young transgender girl named Hannah Bradford navigates starting a new school as her authentic self.
Hannah Bradford: What if they can tell if they find out? Maybe I should just keep wearing the boys' uniform.
Speaker 3: Is that what you want to do? Your dad and I will take your lead on this, remember.
Melissa: It’s a beautiful coming-of-age story about gender identity and belonging. Hannah is nervous about her friends and classmates finding out she's trans, but when they do, they embrace her, even defending her against bullies.
Hannah: I still want to be your friend. Do you?
Speaker 4: Yes. Do you still want to be mine?
Hannah: Yes, of course.
Melissa: First Day is just one of many queer coming of age stories that offers up an alternative narrative for what life could be like growing up as LGBTQ+. For some kids and adults alike, queer children's media, like TV shows, movies, and literature can serve as places of understanding and healing. That's according to Alex Marzano-Lesnevich who recently wrote about queer coming of age stories like First Day for the New York Times. She’s an Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College and author of The Fact of a Body, also of the forthcoming memoir of non-binary identity, Both and Neither. Alex, thanks so much for joining us.
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich: Hi, Melissa. Thanks so much for having me on the show.
Melissa: Absolutely. Now, let's start with Hulu's series First Day. For folks who haven't watched it, tell us a bit about the show and how it portrays trans youth.
Alex: It portrays trans youth really beautifully. The show, as you mentioned, follows this young girl, Hannah. Following her through what is essentially an ordinary twin life. She is going to school. She is navigating her classes. She's navigating her friendships. Along the way, it is discovered by her classmates that she is trans and she is outed. As I said in this piece that I wrote, watching this, I found myself preparing to cry. I totally expected to cry. I expected that they were going to react poorly. Instead, they embraced her and she gets to have an ordinary teenagehood. I think that is just so beautiful.
Melissa: I'm thinking of the 1990 film, Boys Don't Cry, which in certain ways was a critical, important film around youth and trans identity, but also have that brutalizing tragic ending that I think we brace for in watching a film or a series like this.
Alex: Absolutely. It's such a conundrum really, because depicting the pain and violence that trans people so often face in our country is crucially, critically important. It's part of fighting for change. Yet, because there is such a need to depict it, it often means that in the cultural imagination, trans lives can be equated with pain. We don't have that other narrative that says that they can be full of love, that they can be full of joy. I think what we're starting to see in First Day and in other works like it is the chance to do some reparative work to say, “Hold on, the pain is in the culture. The pain is in the attacks foisted upon trans people. The pain is not an endemic part of trans lives. It doesn't have to be it's coming from the culture.”
Melissa: I think that's such a critically important distinction. Now, one of the things I also love that you've been up to is reading YA novels and YA books. It is actually a thing that when my eldest was coming through middle school, I started reading YA books and have loved that experience and continue to read them. Talk to me about the YA books featuring trans or LGBTQ+ characters, and what this queer young adult literature is like, and what it's meant for you.
Alex: Absolutely. I will say this is one of my favorite things to talk about. As a writer, not of YA, but of books meant for adults, most never gets to talk about it. It's like my secret love. I only came out as trans a couple of years ago. I knew I was trans even as a kid, I didn't have language for it, but I knew it. A couple of years ago when I found myself coming out, I realized that I needed these stories. I needed to listen to them. I loved YA audiobooks because I needed to listen to these positive experiences, these opportunities that kids were having on the pages of the books to live fully as themselves.
We've really seen this gorgeous explosion of trans and queer lit published in the last couple of years for young people. Certainly, there were books going backways, but often they emphasize pain. More recently, we're watching teenagers get to live fully on the page. Some of the authors I mentioned in the piece are some of my favorites. Leah Johnson, whose debut You Should See Me in a Crown, follows Liz Lighty, a young Black girl as she runs for prom queen. I'm not going to spoil the ending, but I will say it's beautiful to listen to. It's beautiful to read.
Leah spoke quite movingly to me about the way that she was writing scenes for Liz, her main character, even as she was living them, because she like me didn't come out until later. She was figuring out who she was and how to live openly as who she was. Realizing that she needed to follow this reparative path of Liz Lighty and have Liz have these experiences for her. Another favorite, she's got an upcoming book called Rise to the Sun, I highly recommend it. That will be out July 6th. Another author I just adore is Kacen Callender. They've got a couple of books out now, but I love Felix Ever After, which follows a trans youth navigating their intersectional identities and how to live in the world as who they are fully.
Melissa: It seems to me that this is part of the depth of shared humanity, these moments of transformation and coming into our authenticity, regardless of whether one is cis or trans, whether one self-identifies as straight or as queer, that part of what YA gives us are those moments literally of transformation and of identity-seeking.
Alex: Absolutely. YA lets us experience without cringing, or without sarcasm, really authentic emotional moments. One of the things that teenagers do so beautifully is they live their emotions. As adults, we're often told not to, or given a message not to take that risk, not to be brave in that way. Yet we actually face various shortcomings out all through our lives, right? Certainly, for trans and queer people, there's just endless coming out. We actually face big moments in our friendships, big moments in which we have to be brave about who we are and we fear rejection. That happens all throughout our lives. YA helps teach us actually how to do that, how to hold space for who we really are.
Melissa: Hopefully, how to find love and not critical, nasty, evil anti-trans legislation that we have seen in recent months. I appreciate this opportunity to talk about the joyous and the celebratory depictions of trans life in children and YA media. I encourage everyone to read the piece by Alex Marazano-Lesnevich, who is Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College and author of the forthcoming, Both and Neither, or maybe Both and Neither. Alex, thank you so much for joining us.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.